The Islanders meet at the Crack to prepare for their greatest battle ever...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 103: The Frail White Flag"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR:
IN HER WHOLE time on Manitou Island, Charmian never would have guessed that she would end up clinging to Ocryx's back, soaring high above the Island, her teeth chattering and her muscles aching as scores of Uroona and GeeBees and Windwalkers swept by below. The Uroona had been among the first to make the voyage to Crack-in-the-Island, so there were few left; the stragglers lumbered slowly, their massive bodies swaying from side to side as they walked. The Windwalkers flitted in and out of sight, traveling on random breezes; every so often a GeeBee would dart in between them and press on ahead, ears and tattered clothes fluttering. A fireling could be seen here and there, popping into existence and out again, snapping and crackling upon the ground as they hopped and hissed toward the same goal everyone else was headed for.
Charmian dug her fingers into Ocryx's fur and tried to keep her teeth from clacking. They flew so high up that the air felt like it was freezing; the chill of Devil's Lake, the water still clinging to her clothes, did little to alleviate the situation. If she shivered any harder she would probably fall off.
She peered over the demon's shoulder, looking, for what seemed to be the hundredth time, for any sign of Drake or X'aaru. They passed a tribe of manitous traveling not too far from a band of lake manitous; they kept a distance from each other, but at least they weren't attacking. Over on the other side, a GeeBee, accidentally buffeted by one of his fellows, struck one of the Uroona in the back; the giant creature lifted its ponderous head and let out a low vibrating noise, which sent the windling zipping away in another direction. Charmian could feel the tension between all of them, and was grateful that they weren't at each other's throats. Yet.
She blinked tears away from her eyes and squinted, then her face lit up. Another large shape, wings spread wide, soared into sight below them, rising higher. Drake grasped onto X'aaru's back, his neck craned up so he could see her. He looked as if he wanted to wave but didn't dare. Charmian did instead, and he finally got the courage to point downward. She recognized Mani among the manitous below; he was trailing Ocryx from the ground, glancing up every so often before continuing on his way. X'aaru rose through the air, his wings flapping hard.
"HEY CHARM!" Drake practically had to scream above the rush of the wind. Ocryx's ears flicked; Charmian felt his fur bristle between her fingers, and saw X'aaru's ears fold back, his wings drawing in a bit, away from the dominant demon's space. She dug her fingers into his shoulders as hard as she could; she saw his muzzle wrinkle but he ignored X'aaru now, and she felt safe enough acknowledging the others.
"Mani's down there!" Drake shouted, pointing again. He waved his hand forward. "The fairy lady's somewhere up there!"
"You saw Chepi?"
"She was directing traffic!"
Charmian's face screwed up but Drake didn't elaborate. He waved off to his left now. "I think I saw Mitchi in that direction. That guy--" he waved at a big grayish-colored Uroona to Charmian's right "--said that he's the last one of his kind left behind."
"Do you know where Augwak is?"
Drake shook his head. "No, but from what I heard the others saying, I think he's trying to keep a low profile until he gets there!"
Charmian's mouth twitched but she forced herself not to smile. "Can you sense Ocryana anywhere?" Drake asked, and she didn't have to keep herself from smiling anymore; she shook her head with a serious look.
"Not anywhere. She's hiding. I know it."
"Ya think she knows?"
"I can't tell. I've been trying to send out a message to Silver Eagle Feather to keep her apprised. I figure if anybody can keep Ocryana at bay for a little while, it's her."
"Oh..." Drake frowned. "You didn't know? That's right, I forgot to tell you."
"Tell me what? It better not be important!"
"Well, naw, not incredibly...I had to go by Stick's tribe while looking for the rest of the Uroona and I talked to Silver Eagle Feather there. I told her about Shadow Water. She said she was going to go by there first." He shrugged one shoulder, then gasped and grabbed onto X'aaru's wing. "I think she knew you'd be looking around for her, so whenever she gets done there, you can try again."
"And how will I know when that is?"
"Heck, she's a medicine woman! SHE'LL probably tell YOU!"
Charmian briefly considered retorting, then nudged the feeling away. He was right; whenever Silver Eagle Feather wanted Charmian to contact her, she'd let her know. She didn't have to worry about that, at least.
She thought also of Shadow Water, back at Devil's Lake...from the looks of it she'd been tended to already. Charmian didn't have to guess by whom. She couldn't really understand what had prompted the demon to take in the daughter of his enemy...but she supposed it didn't matter. Just as long as she was safely out of the picture, for now...
"Holy crap!" Drake shouted.
Charmian glanced downward again and sucked in a breath. They coasted over the woods near the Crack and as it and the large field beyond came into view, she almost couldn't believe what she was seeing. It was as if every elemental of the Island had gathered here in one massive council...and thinking about it harder, she knew this wasn't too far from the truth.
The ground below was thick with creatures--Uroona, GeeBees, Windwalkers, firelings, halfling spirits, manitous. They all milled about in seeming confusion, but for the Uroona, which simply stood where they were like giant statues, and the halfling spirits, which hung from the trees or sat on the ground with neutral looks on their faces. Charmian could even see a few of the spirits dangling from the Uroona themselves, preening their ears while the massive sandlings appeared to be sleeping.
A commotion came from the far end of the gathering, and Charmian and Drake both lifted their heads. Charmian cringed and felt like letting herself fall, if it would mean being put out of her misery. She felt the vibration of Ocryx's growl and just wanted to die all the more.
You'd better have a good reason for me coming here, mainlander.
Chepi stood in the middle of a confused group below, flapping her wings and snapping in everyone's faces. Every so often she would spin around indignantly, and her wings would fwap someone across the cheek. Charmian saw now that one of those she was snapping at was Augwak...she squinched her eyes shut rather than watch the two windlings have it out, and buried her face between Ocryx's shoulderblades.
Drake cocked his head. "I don't think they like each other."
"What makes you think that?" Charmian said with a wince. She felt Ocryx begin to descend, and held on accordingly. "I REALLY hope Nathalit knows what she's talking about..."
Those situated directly below them lifted their heads to look up as they approached. Their eyes widened when they saw who had arrived, and they scurried to get out of the way. Ocryx didn't have to bother finding a clear spot to land; everyone had moved away, leaving at least a few yards free to each side of him. He landed on one foot, wings spreading to keep his balance, and Charmian slid off his back, nearly falling to the ground. She got to her feet and dashed toward the Crack before he could change his mind about the wisdom of coming here.
Charmian reached the Crack--luckily there was a pathway cleared, leading toward it--and came to a halt at its mouth, turning around again. "Hey!" she yelled, holding up her hands. A few halflings glanced her way, but aside from that nobody stopped talking and milling. Charmian blinked in disbelief, then ground her teeth and yelled harder. "HEY!"
No response. She opened her mouth to scream at the top of her lungs, when somebody did it for her. A booming bellow shattered through all the chatter, making everyone fall immediately silent. Every face went dead white. Including Charmian's. She stood with her mouth hanging to see Ocryx flare his nostrils and jerk his head at her, giving her the go-ahead. She swallowed the grapefruit-sized lump rising in her throat and managed to find her voice. Even though it was soft and quavery, still it seemed abnormally loud in the absolute silence.
"Um...thanks," she murmured, then cleared her throat. She held up her hands. "I know you're all wondering why you're here...and I know I promised to let you all know why, but even after I tell you it might not make much sense. You have to bear with me though!"
"Get to it, fleshling!" Augwak shouted from the back of the crowd. "We haven't all day, and if the Island's coming to an end, I'd rather spend my time doing something more entertaining!"
A few grumbles of assent rose from the GeeBee faction. Their chief squawked when Chepi cuffed him on the ear, and he stood rubbing it with an evil look. The little woman stepped forward, fluttering her wings daintily.
"Charmian dear, we all know it must be dreadfully important to drag both those of highest standing and those...unmentionables..." she glared at Augwak as she said this "...out here today. If it saves the Island, then the Queen of the Windwalkers is for it! I have always had the Island's best interests at heart."
Augwak rolled his eyes and made a gagging sound. "Somebody tear out my heart right now. AAWP!" He yelped when Chepi cuffed him again.
"Thanks," Charmian said. She swallowed, since every single eye was currently focused on her. "Um...anyway. I'm sure all of you know about Ocryana and what she's been up to by now." There was a general shifting noise, and she took courage from the fact that everyone else seemed to be just as nervous as she was. She supposed that Ocryx's presence helped bolster her case somewhat. "That's why I called you all here. I know this is kind of awkward for you...but I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't important." She stepped to the side and gestured at the Crack; the others looked down at it as if they'd never seen it before. "I'm going to need all of you to follow me down there."
There was a lot of blinking. More than a few of those gathered glanced up at the Uroona towering over them.
"And how do you propose to do this?" Augwak grumbled. "It looks as if there's hardly enough room for even a windling down there, much less one of THEM!"
"Lay off!" Drake snapped. He stepped up to Charmian's side and made a face. "If it's necessary, then everybody can find a way to do it!"
"You guys," Charmian said, a little bit of desperation growing inside her. She waved at a few halfling spirits perched nearby. "You seemed comfortable enough down there before. Why don't you show them how to do it?"
She was worried for a moment that the spirits wouldn't much care to obey, but to her relief they drifted down toward the ground and slipped into the Crack, vanishing from sight. A few of the others murmured but Augwak snorted.
"They're spirits. What did you expect them to do?"
"Be quiet, toad!" Chepi exclaimed, and stomped on his foot. The GeeBee yelped and jumped up and down, rubbing at his toes. Chepi offered her most insincere smile.
"Charmian...dear. I already told you, one of my stature could hardly deign to descend into such a...place...as that. Would you look at my wings? They could hardly bear the humidity down there..."
You think they could bear what the demon-bitch will hand out? Mitchi Manitou growled, making the fairy shrink in on herself. He snorted and lifted his nose toward the Crack. If a puny halfling can go down there, then it is no difficulty for a manitou.
"You see?" Charmian said. She gestured toward the crevice again. "And if a manitou can do it, then I bet that...uh..."
She trailed off...indeed everyone's murmuring trailed off...as one of the Uroona appeared to dissolve into a dusty mist, hissing softly down into the Crack and out of sight. The rest of the giants followed suit, slipping between the rock like sand passing through an hourglass. More than a few mouths fell open on seeing this happen, but Drake merely scratched his head.
"Huh. Go figure."
"Uh..." Charmian had to shake her own head to snap out of it, and turned back to the others. "Well...like I said, if a manitou can do it, then anybody can...right? I promise I'll explain everything once we all get down there...okay?"
Silence. She knew it didn't last long, but she still felt like wringing her hands. Finally Mitchi snorted again and shifted into his deer form. He landed on all fours and thudded past her, squeezing his way down into the Crack without a second glance. After a pause a few more of the lake manitous followed him, then some of the tribal manitous, the two mixing together so Charmian couldn't tell them apart. After them went the firelings, hopping and hissing and jumping down into the earth; then the Windwalkers, Chepi grimacing and fretting all the way; then, with a disgusted look and a snort of his own, Augwak finally went, the other GeeBees following suit. None spoke as they descended, and Charmian, Drake, Mani, X'aaru, and Ocryx stood and watched them leave.
Only once the last windling had vanished did Charmian let out her breath and press a hand to her forehead. Drake peered at her a moment, and then coughed quietly; she lifted her gaze to see that Mani and the two Ocryxes still stood staring at her, as if waiting for instructions. She flushed and pulled her hand away.
"Oh. I guess we should get going down there too..."
"Wait! Wait up!"
Charmian halted with one foot halfway in the air. She glanced over her shoulder in some puzzlement at the familiar voice; when she saw who it belonged to, her face screwed up.
Manabozho came running up through the woods, nearly tripping over a root but managing to catch his balance just in time to avoid falling flat on his face. He stopped several feet away, hands on his knees and chest heaving. Even his feathers looked limp. Charmian put her foot down and turned to face him, the others looking curious.
"I was kind of wondering if and when you would ever show up again."
"As if...I would let you...go down there all by yourself?" Manabozho panted. He stood upright and tried to make an impressive figure of himself, but failed miserably. "Wherever you shall need me, I will be there. Call my name on the wind, and I will appear. When the--"
"If you get a chance to claim a bit of the glory yourself, too," Charmian interrupted, crossing her arms. "Funny how you tend to only show up at those times."
Manabozho looked offended. "You can't talk to me like that. I belong here just as much as he does." He dared to point at Ocryx, who growled at him in return.
Charmian waved him off. "Whatever. We're going down into the Crack. I'm betting the others are kind of confused by now, to say the least. They're going to want to know what's going on."
With this, she made her way carefully down toward the shallow end of the crevice, Drake following. The others hesitated before doing likewise; Charmian watched with some apprehension as the two demons sniffed at the narrow sides of the opening before shifting into their wolf form to fit through. Mani paced a bit, looking confused as he had the last time he was here; he finally managed, with what appeared to be much effort, to shrink his antlers somewhat to better pass through. Charmian turned back and continued down into the earth. Why did she keep worrying about shapeshifters? Whenever something went wrong, they could just change into something else.
Things proceeded much the same as they had on her first time here. Far ahead she could still hear the yelling and grousing of the others who had entered the Crack before her; she bit the inside of her mouth on thinking of how they'd react when they saw where it really led. She sensed Ocryx's impatience with the whole thing and crawled through the tunnel as quickly as she could. Drake, the demons, and Manabozho had no difficulty following, but she still worried about Mani, and wondered how the other manitous had managed to make it. Her fears were only confirmed when she heard him grunt, his antlers clacking against the rock. Peering over her shoulder, she could see him far back in the tunnel twisting his head around.
"You must be the most ignorant of the manitous I've ever seen," Manabozho grumbled. Charmian kicked back at him and he barked when her foot hit his chin.
"Take that back!"
"Well it's true, isn't it! Do you see any other manitous stuck down here?" He waved back at Mani in impatience; the manitou was practically flushing, his head bowed meekly. "Just change into your element! Surely you can do that? How do you think the others made it through? What are you, a waterling?"
Mani blinked, and the color rose in his cheeks. Charmian sensed an apology before he dissolved before her eyes. She goggled at the sight for a moment, then kicked Manabozho again, making him yell.
"WOULD YOU STOP THAT!"
"What did you just do to him? You MELTED him!"
"I didn't MELT anybody! You wanted him to come with us, didn't you?"
"And so where is he now? Jerk!"
Manabozho gave her a dirty look. "Check under your hand," he replied.
Charmian frowned and did so. There wasn't anything there but crystal and...she hadn't felt any water here before. She glanced around herself, looking for a leak or a trickle, but found none. To her surprise, the water splashed down the tunnel ahead of her as if with a will of its own. It didn't leave a wet trail like normal water did, instead gathering in on itself and vanishing from sight.
Charmian stared with confusion after the bizarre sight. "That was Mani?"
Manabozho pushed on her behind. "Get moving! We're not supposed to be here all day!"
Charmian's face burned. "DON'T TOUCH MY ASS!" She made certain to kick him as hard as she could, feeling satisfied with the pained sound he let out in response. They stopped arguing--though Manabozho did grumble to himself a bit--and continued down the tunnel, toward the end.
The tunnel began to widen, and Charmian frowned when she saw several others gathered in the exit. They all looked at her as she approached on hands and knees, and she noticed that Augwak was among them. They started glancing between her and the tunnel's mouth.
Charmian grew irritated. "Well? What's taking you? Do you need me to hold your hand on the way out?"
"Someone suggested we wait for you, fleshling," Augwak groused. She could tell he wasn't pleased with the decision, whoever had made it. "So if you want to go through there, then hurry up and go through."
"You don't trust me?" Charmian said; she crept past him and felt a bit better to see that none of the tribal manitous, Uroona, or halflings were about, nor were most of the Windwalkers. At least somebody trusted her... She nudged Augwak out of the way, making a point of ignoring his offended look, and squeezed out of the tunnel exit. When Augwak didn't immediately follow, she grabbed his ear and yanked on it to pull him out, the GeeBee protesting all the way.
Here, in the grassy area beyond, the others were waiting for her. They seemed too surprised by their surroundings to much notice her arrival, however. She stood and stopped, looking from one to another as they stared at the sky, the trees, the grass, their eyes wide and some of their mouths hanging open.
"What...what exactly is all this?" Chepi asked, confused.
"The Borderlands," Charmian answered. They all turned to look at her now, sensing her superior knowledge on the subject; she relished pausing for a moment to build the suspense before continuing.
"This is where I wanted you to meet, but we have to go a little further first."
"To where?" Manabozho asked, and she opened her mouth to speak, then shut it, then furrowed her brow. She looked uneasily at Drake.
"Um...did you see how we got to the Gemfields...?"
Drake blinked. He shook his head.
Charmian felt like her insides were shriveling up, and rubbed at her forehead. "Great...we have to meet somewhere, but we don't even have bus fare."
"What is this?" Manabozho said, then frowned. "I thought you knew what you were doing...?"
"Be quiet. I'm trying to think." Thinking wasn't easy, however; she could hear the others begin to fidget and shift impatiently, their eyes narrowing dangerously. She held up her hands to try to calm them down.
"Hold on a minute, okay? I said we'd get there and I meant it! I just have to figure out how."
Drake tugged on her sleeve. "Um...Charm..."
"What, Drake? Do you have some idea?"
"Well, not really, but..."
"Then why are you BOTHERING me?"
In response Drake nodded his head to the side and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Charmian followed the direction he pointed in and saw X'aaru standing at the edge of the group, shifting from foot to foot. He saw that she had noticed him and his face lit up. Charmian felt like smacking herself.
"Oh...duh. X, come here, please."
The demon eagerly obliged, tail practically wagging. Now Ocryx was the one to frown, but he said nothing; the others watched with open curiosity as Charmian addressed X'aaru.
"First I guess we need some water or something..." She waved at the nearby stream. "Do you think that will do?"
"It could, but the water has to be falling through the air..."
"That's no trouble; we have plenty of water elementals around here." She glared at Mitchi Manitou in particular. "I could do it if I wanted, but I think it'd be best if I saved my energy for now..."
Mitchi growled at her but shook his antlers. A spout of water gushed into the air and hovered there for a moment, then began to trickle back to earth, dampening the grass. X'aaru approached it and concentrated on the mist while Charmian spoke to the others.
"If this works, in a minute we'll be going to a place called the Gemfields. It's not too far from here, but we have to use a kind of...weird...way to get there. That's what X'aaru will be working on." She gestured at the demon. "In the meantime, I want to tell you all that I really do appreciate you coming here; I know it's inconvenient for you...and you'd rather be doing other things..." this with a glare at Augwak "...but you must understand it's important, else I don't think you'd even be here."
"You said you had a way to get back at that wolf-bitch," Augwak hissed. "Is that waiting for us at these 'Gemfields'?"
"Yes. At least I hope it is."
The GeeBee started to swell up; Charmian hastily pressed on before he could blow. "I'm pretty sure we can beat her, but only if EVERYONE here works together. That means no doublecrossing. NO stabbing in the back." Now, she glared at all of them. "I know that's second nature to most of you here--"
"HEY!" Chepi cried. "I am as purehearted as the winter snow!"
And as pleasant as an icicle in the nose, Ocryx growled.
"--but for now, you'll HAVE to leave off and do what I say. Okay?" They didn't reply in the affirmative, but their general grumbling and shuffling was good enough. "Oh, and one more thing...there's somebody waiting for us over there...and she might seem a little strange at first."
"She--?" Augwak echoed, just as a glow appeared behind Charmian. She turned to see a pale rainbow creep skyward from the misting water. X'aaru stepped back and rubbed one hand against his forehead.
"Is this good enough?"
Charmian smiled at him and his tail wagged. "It's perfect, X. Thanks." She looked toward the others. "Well? Follow me and step right through." She approached the rainbow and set foot inside it, watching the looks on the others' faces; she could tell from their reactions that most of them hadn't even considered traveling through rainbows before. The manitous cocked their heads in puzzlement; Chepi jumped up and down and squealed, clapping her hands.
"Oooooooohh! That looks like so much fun!" She rushed forward, pushing Manabozho out of the way so he fell to the ground. "Move it, peasant! Let a QUEEN through first!"
Manabozho's lip curled back and he snapped his fingers at her. A fluffy rabbit tail appeared from the folds of her dress; it was fortunate she was in such a hurry to pass through the rainbow, else everyone's raucous laughter would have tipped her off that something was amiss. Charmian squeezed back against the edge of the rainbow to let her past, cringing at the wiggling appendage; she cast Manabozho a dirty look before following.
If everyone had looked surprised before they'd entered the rainbow, then they looked even more surprised now. Charmian couldn't help but feel a brief twinge of superiority at seeing the stunned looks on their faces. The endless stretch of crystal fields held them in so much awe that at first nobody even noticed Tal Natha, Red Bird, and Dakh and Sikt coming their way. The only ones that didn't seem even mildly curious were the Uroona and the halfling spirits, the former of whom merely stood immobile as if sleeping, the latter of whom perched at various spots grooming themselves or staring off into space.
"I was starting to worry that you wouldn't make it back," Red Bird said, approaching Charmian and taking her hands. X'aaru paced in circles with his tail flicking from side to side.
"They're here! They're safe! I was so worried when I felt that thing...I thought something went wrong, and I didn't know what to do..."
He immediately fell silent when Tal Natha went to him and pressed his muzzle to the side of his face. Charmian could tell X'aaru was surprised by the gesture, but then his tail wagged again and he returned it. After a moment Tal Natha drew away and faced the others, then looked at Charmian.
You have told them, yet?
"Not quite," Charmian said. She rubbed at her neck. "I thought it would be best if they all came here first, then when they were goggling with awe I could lay it all out for them."
Augwak hopped forward, pushing Chepi aside so that she fell. Manabozho didn't even bother to hide his smile as the fairy got back to her feet, muttering under her breath. The GeeBee halted before Charmian, a bit closer than she would have liked, and dug his fingers into the ground, clawing up earth.
"You said once we got here you'd tell us how to get rid of that demon!" he hissed, and tore up a handful of soil, shaking it in the air. "Make it quick and spit it out before I decide that stupid rock isn't worth it!"
"I wouldn't put it so vulgarly, but I have to agree," Chepi said. She patted at her feathered cap. "What is so impressive that you had to bring us all the way down here just to tell us?"
Charmian ground her teeth. They all had to know by now the precarious situation the Island was in; why then were they always so ungrateful whenever she tried to help? She opened her mouth, whether to finally give them their explanation or to say something a bit more rude, she wasn't sure, but a sudden glowing from off to her side told her she could put it off for at least a few more minutes. She closed her mouth again and smirked as the glow took shape, and a moment later almost every single mouth fell open when Nathalit appeared.
"Part 105: Ascent Of Evil"
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